Photoshop, the image and us…

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Over the last 20 years, Photoshop has become an indispensable tool in media and advertising. From streamlining models to de-wrinkling celebrities, Adobe’s star product has transformed the way we think about photography. Image retouching is everywhere, so much so that it is hard to know how many fiddled, fixed and embellished photos pass before our eyes every day. In magazines, bars, on TV or just on the street, images are omnipresent, presenting their product in the best light possible, even if that does mean stretching the truth a little…

André Gunthert is a visual history researcher and multimedia editor: “Photoshop has changed the way we see images. It completely revolutionizes the medium of photography, a medium that is meant to represent objectivity and truth. I always felt that was a myth, and Photoshop proves it.” For Elysabeth François, assistant editor of Elle.fr, “every image is a suspect. When a great magazine cover comes out, “thank heavens for Photoshop!” are the first words you’re likely to hear.”

Even more, the tool is becoming democratized and the miracles it facilitates accessible by everyone. Photoshop is such an ingrained part of modern vocabulary that it has even become a verb – to Photoshop – and the concept is second nature to a public that is now well used to retouched images. Even so, the practice isn’t new; at the beginning of the last century, the practice was already in fashion. Just take a look at images from the former USSR, where certain opponents or political rivals would mysteriously disappear from official photos from one year to the next.

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People understood the power of the image before the age of Photoshop. “The Greeks also manipulated images”, adds André Gunthert. “If you look at the Venus of Milo or statues of Apollo, they aren’t just average people off the street. The sculptor Phidias, for example, considered five different models before he found his ‘perfect’ woman. It was pre-Photoshop Photoshop”. Elysabeth François agrees. “It is a standard in art. Painters, like the photographers that came after them, have always looked for ways of improving on reality.”

But you should be careful what you wish for. “Certain figures from fashion, movies and TV can’t bear to see UNretouched photos of themselves. They want to appear to be perfect”. So says Cyril Bruneau, a freelance photographer and ‘retoucher’.

The quest for perfection, however, has a tendency to spin out of control. Even before the Demi Moore incident, Ralph Lauren had an unhappy experience during an advertising campaign. The images in question aren’t just an exaggeration; they are actually difficult to stomach. PhotoshopDisasters, a website that specializes in this type of artistic mess-up, has kept an eye on the saga, much to the disgust of the fashion label – it even threatened the website with legal action.

As an employee of fashion magazine Elle, Elysabeth François has to tread carefully. “I’m not against Photoshop being used as long as it is within reason. I am against it when it could be construed as aggravating, however, such as in the case of extreme thinness and anorexia”. The ‘ideal’ image as presented by fashion publications is often the cause of problems and, as a result, the industry has found itself at the center of an intense debate. Does Photoshop need to be regulated?

Valérie Boyer, a UMP (French political party) representative, thinks it should. In September 2009, the politician presented a legal amendment to include special mention of retouched photos. “These images can drive a person to believe in things that often don’t exist”, states the amendment, before adding that it wants to “end the misrepresentation of body image”. The press and fashion magazines have been particularly quick to intervene in the sol.called “Photoshop Bill”. “Without a doubt, fashion is more exposed to the ‘beauty imperative’ than other industries are – it is always there. Even so, all types of publications use Photoshop to a greater or lesser degree”, counters Elysabeth François.

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The image of Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris-Match is a great example. Tripping along in his canoe, there was no sight of the spare tire that resulted from the French President’s enthusiastic paddling. “It’s a simple form of normalization”, says André Gunthert. “That photo isn’t a tool for reconstructing reality; it’s more about a story, illustrating a point. In my opinion, photojournalism isn’t about respecting journalistic ethics, it’s about representing reality. But that doesn’t apply to magazine likes Elle…. and I have the impression that even that is changing. Dove was a real trailblazer with its campaign that extolled natural beauty. It worked because it detached itself from the ideal of a perfect beauty.”

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Marketers are smart. After a lifetime hunting for flaws, some manufacturers are now leaping to the defense of the ‘real’ woman, no doubt winning additional market share in the process. In April 2009, ELLE magazine jumped on the bandwagon by publishing pictures of eight stars without lights, makeup or Photoshop (see here). For Elysabeth Francis, however, it was neither a homecoming nor a trend. “I think it was a way of getting attention, not necessarily a desire to return to authenticity. It was just a good way to show that the stars could be beautiful without make-up”.

So when can we talk about picture being ‘retouched’? Cyril Bruneau has his own ideas on the issue: “The photographer already has plenty of settings on his camera to transform what he sees into what he wants. That’s when the transformation of reality really begins”. Photoshop has accomplices, but they are rarely mentioned. Complementary techniques (filters, lighting, etc…) and software like Lightroom or Aperture, help that Cyril Bruneau also leverages. “Photoshop is a professional tool”, says Andre Gunthert. “Amateur photographers have no time for retouching, either through laziness or ignorance. They want is to take lots of pictures and take them quickly. They have no time for editing. I don’t think you can call an image ‘retouched’ until the retouching makes it valuable”.

A tool that’s professional, revolutionary, indispensable and dangerous. Photoshop has evolved over time and through fashions, while simultaneously becoming a symbol of the low points and contradictions of our age: the omnipresence of advertising, mistrust of the media, globalization and the impact of the digital image on our daily lives. Photoshop has encouraged suspicion of visual information, making us more critical, more vigilant. But is anyone complaining?

[Via: OnSoftware France]

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